The ‘Aspirational’ and ‘Real’ Values Dilemma

The overall title for this Blog is “Values in Education Dilemmas” and the ‘aspirational’ verses ‘real’ issue is an on going dilemma for parents, teachers and schools. In education as in life the aspirational values in our values and vision statements are just that, aspirational. What we often fail to recognise is there is often a large gap between our “aspirational” values and our “real” values. What makes this dilemma quite problematic is we often call our aspirational values our “core” values. They are what we want people to believe and to act upon. But unfortunately, as Marc Alan Schelske says “what most people don’t understand is that there are really two different kinds of ‘core’ values.” He describes the two as “aspirational” and “authentic”. Again here in this paragraph we have another of the very real problems about values in education and other parts of life. When people talk about values they often use different words to describe the same thing and then everyone ends up confused! In this paragraph the real distinction I am making is our “aspirational” values can be very different from what people variously call our “actual”/ “authentic”/ “real” values.

Image from Marc Alan Schelske at:

One of my “bouquet” schools in an earlier post included on their website a link to an article by Jessica Lahey entitled “Why kids care more about achievement than helping others.”  This is very challenging and highly recommended! Lahey writes “A new study from Harvard University reveals that the message parents mean to send children about the value of empathy is being drowned out by the message we actually send: that we value achievement and happiness above all else.”  Lahey continues “ the authors point to a ‘rhetoric/reality gap,’ an incongruity between what adults tell children they should value and the messages we grown-ups actually send through our behaviour. We may pay lip service to values and empathy, but our children report hearing a very different message.” The study showed that while 96 percent of parents say they want to raise ethical, caring children, and cite the development of moral character as “very important, if not essential,” 80 percent of the youths surveyed reported that their parents “are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others.” Approximately the same percentage reported that their teachers prioritize student achievement over caring. Surveyed students were three times as likely to agree as disagree with the statement “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my class than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.” A quality infographic that summarises the study findings can be viewed here.

There is considerable evidence of this gap between what parents and schools tell young people they should be like and what the society, or groups with society, seem to be ‘saying’ to young people. As I write this boys at Wellington College have be outed – as a kind of ‘Roast Busters III’ – for Facebook comments about taking advantage of drunk girls. This is the third time in the last 5 years that such cases have been exposed in NZ secondary schools. In 2013 it was the original Roast Busters, in 2015 another incident dubbed “Roast Busters II” involving senior boys at another unnamed school was reported. The Wellington College Principal said of the current case the behaviour was not consistent with the school’s values. The schools vision statement says the school’s values include “insisting upon and fostering honesty, integrity, fairness, responsible leadership, mutual respect and tolerance.” The statement also highlights the character qualities of “high standards of behaviour and achievement” and community attributes of “caring.” I don’t know what the school vision and values statements of the original Roast Busters and other similar cases said but I am pretty sure that would they be similar to those outlined above.

Kyla Rayner Wellington Rape Crisis manager said of the recent incident “It’s good that this is being made public. Just because we don’t hear about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It’s not news to us, a lot of people are still holding to these values.” Further Maree Crabbe, who studies the effects of cyber bullying, sexting and pornography, told hundreds of parents at a workshop at Otago Boys’ High School that “pornography was giving young people a ‘distorted view’ of what was normal. Worryingly, pornography was becoming increasingly aggressive and often included degrading and violent acts against women.” This, she suggested, was changing many young people’s attitudes and expectations towards sex and giving people “a pretty disturbing model of normal.”

Image Chris Fitzsimon: In his article at:

Katie Fitzpatrick also made some very pertinent points in her NZ Herald column on this issue. She writes “This week’s news about Wellington College students’ discussions on Facebook raises yet again issues of rape culture, sexism and young people …. the attitudes expressed are a reflection of how women are represented in other online forums, in pornography and in television and film.” She continues … “The real issue is societal-wide attitudes to women and we all need to take responsibility” and then suggests that there is … “an opportunity at school for young people to engage with studying, critiquing and challenging how intimate relationships, sex and sexuality are being presented to them, and for them to learn relationship skills.

Another important point she makes is that … “the discussions have come to light despite occurring in a private Facebook page. This means at least one person involved in the discussion decided to challenge the attitudes being aired there and do something about it. Many young people are just as concerned with – and perhaps even more willing to challenge – these kinds of attitudes than adults are. We need to stop treating young people as problematic and wayward “naughty” kids, and start ensuring that they are able to engage in meaningful learning and discussion about these kinds of issues. It is not the role of schools to solve this societal problem but schools do have a role in engaging young people with learning about it.”

Powerful and influential aspects of current society are sending very different values to young people than the aspirational values they hear being promoted to them by schools and parents. The studies and cases reviewed here suggest we need to do more work on understanding and addressing the mismatch between ‘aspirational’ values and ‘actual’ enacted values! Although I don’t go along with all that Barnabus Piper has to say in his podcast about this at –  Complete Alignment – Get real with yourself!  – the exercise he describes there is well worth doing personally and with our students. It helps us to realise the how this dilemma effects our own values, habits and behaviours.